By Talullah Blanco
This article is the first in our series of wonderful feminist research work submitted to us in response to our call on social media, to centre the work of women and trans academics, as part of our Gender in Academia campaign. Talullah Blanco graduated with a degree in Journalism and Intersectional Advocacy, and writes on the duplicity of crisis pregnancy centres in the US, which are faith-based ‘clinics’ driven by the pro-life movement against abortion, and their implications for reproductive healthcare and bodily autonomy.
Next time you go to a Planned Parenthood or abortion care clinic, look around and you will most likely find a faith-based crisis pregnancy center. And with more than 3,000 throughout the country they vastly outnumber the 788 abortion clinics across the United States in 2014, according to the Guttmacher institute.
In the early 1970s the anti abortion movement adopted a new campaign strategy–depicting abortion as detrimental to both women’s mental and physical health, abortion providers as exploitive and victimizing women seeking abortion instead of demonizing them. This change in rhetoric positioned anti abortion work as medically safe for women and launched an entirely new facet of the pro-life movement–crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs).
CPCs, sometimes known as “pregnancy resource centers,” “pregnancy care centers” or “women’s resource centers” are religiously affiliated organizations who seek to council women with unintended or “crisis” pregnancies who may be considering abortion. Their primary mission? Prevent abortion by persuading women that adoption or parenting is a better option. In order to attract women CPCs employ a number of deceptive strategies including establishing themselves near abortion clinics and adopting names that make them sound like abortion providers.
The local San Bernardino County, California CPC, is no exception to this strategy–naming themselves the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center and is located in the same cul-de-sac as the Planned Parenthood–and it works.
“Some of them have been on their way to the Planned Parenthood back there, they see our sign that sits out there, “free pregnancy tests” so they come in and park,” explains Pregnancy and Family Resource Center volunteer, Miriam Tolsma.
On the clearly calculated establishment of the CPC next to Planned Parenthood, Tolsma insisted it was all part of “God’s plan”– unsurprising rhetoric coming from a self proclaimed devout Christian.
Tolsma, an elderly white Christian woman, began volunteering with the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center when a friend from church recommended the position to her. At first thought, her plate was just too full, but like any pro life Christian, anti abortion advocacy called. Thus began Tolsma’s ten-week CPC training program, which included several weeks of watching videos of interviews of women who have had abortions and their reactions, speakers from adoption centers and memorizing anti abortion biblical references.
“I’d known these before because I’ve been well versed in the bible all of my life,” explains Tolsma. “God cares about life, he cares about human life specifically because he made us in his image and that gives value to every person.”
Biblical knowledge prior to CPC training is not uncommon among volunteers at the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center, considering they all identify as Christian. Comprehensive ten-week pro life trainings such as these arm CPCs with religiously devout volunteers who are skilled practitioners of disseminating misleading anti abortion rhetoric.
Not only do the volunteers at the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center advocate against abortion, but the center’s official website disseminates misinformation claiming them as facts, depicting abortion as medically harmful. The information section of the center’s website provides a host of inaccurate material, claiming that abortion is violent and painful, that nearly 100 percent of women who choose abortion regret it, that abortion is detrimental to women’s emotional and physical health, causing suicidal depression and at least a 50 percent chance increased risk of cancer.
The formulation of abortion as a medical harm was conceived from the pro life movement weaponization of the documented consequences of illegal abortions to women’s health. This allowed anti abortion physicians to create their own medical research that incorrectly claimed legal abortion endangered women’s health–medical research pro life activists and CPCs rely on today.
When women visit CPCs, unwittingly or not, they are often met with volunteers mimicking common practices of legitimate medical clinics, such as greeting women with medical history forms attached to clipboards and intake patient rooms.
Upon further inspection there are a significant set of differences between traditional intake questions and those at the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center, including a “Release and Disclaimer” explaining that the center operates as a non-profit ministry and their “advocates” are not degreed or licensed personnel. Further intake questioning includes if the client has had an abortion and if so, any post-abortion regrets, the client’s initial intentions with pregnancy, their relationship with their parents and whether they would support the pregnancy and the client’s religious affiliation.
“We ask about their religious preference so we know how to relate to them and whether they attend church or not,” explains Tolsma. “If they do attend a church one of our questions is ‘what does it mean to you to be a christian?’ some of them have no clue and then it’s my privilege to be able to tell them what it means.”
In this context, what it means to be Christian includes belief in fetal personhood and that life begins at conception. “I believe it begins at conception, because at that moment when the sperm and the egg get together it has all the ingredients for a full grown human being except for time and a nurturing environment,” explains Tolsma. This notion of fetal personhood is further emphasized on the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center’s informational portion of their website, falsely explaining that “the baby actually convulses in pain for an hour or more before death,” during post sixteen week abortion procedures, despite there being no evidence of fetal pain.
To further blur distinctions between their facilities and abortion providers, CPCs including the Pregnancy and Family Resource Center, administer urinary pregnancy tests and ultrasounds after women have checked in. By asking women to urinate into specimen cups women are often deceived, believing they were administered laboratory testing when in fact it is an HcG urine test, or dipstick test.
The Pregnancy and Family Resource Center uses Quick and Clear II, an HcG urine test manufactured by Heritage House, a pro life merchandise catalog platform. “We have the ladies do their own [pregnancy] tests, but then we keep the urine sample and a nurse comes in and retests with the same thing,” explains Tolsma. Both client and nurse use the same urine sample and the HcG test, Quick and Clear II, to check for pregnancy, not once administering a laboratory test.
Because CPCs are not medical facilities they are exempt from the same regulatory oversight as medical clinics. The Pregnancy and Family Resource Center officially operates as a non-profit ministry which not only exempts them from laws and statutes specific to medical clinics but also from Federal Trade Commission or state regulations that apply to commercial enterprises, according to AMA Journal of ethics. Additionally their pro life chicanery practices are considered an exercise of free speech and are protected under the First Amendment, making them even more difficult to regulate.
In an effort to regulate anti abortion facilities such as CPCs, California passed the Reproductive FACT (Freedom, Accountability, Comprehensive Care, and Transparency) Act in Oct. 2015. The bill required all licenced covered facilities, including CPCs, to notify all their clients of state offered “has public programs that provide immediate free or low-cost access to comprehensive family planning services, prenatal care, and abortion, for eligible women.” The bill also required all unlicensed covered facilities to notify all clients that the facilities are not licensed as a medical facility by the State of California.
All progress made towards regulating CPCs was brought to an abrupt halt in June, 2018 when the case National Institute of Family and Life Advocates v. Becerra resulted in a 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court of the United States, ordering all lower courts to impose an injunction against the Reproductive FACT Act, ruling it would likely violate the First Amendment – a victory for the pro life movement.
So long as CPCs remain unregulated by both state and federal governments they will continue to unethically ruse young pregnant women, doling out biased counseling services and false medical information. No woman should be unwittingly lied to in order to achieve a faith-based agenda. This chicanery must be countered with informed truths, empowering women with knowledge and awareness, giving them the agency to choose for themselves.
Stay tuned for more interesting research and interviews with the academics themselves!